Silent film and the great pandemic of 1918

Unlike the avalanche of news and online videos around coronavirus, there’s hardly any record on film of the flu pandemic of 1918. That’s why this rare surviving public information film is so special.

3 June 2020

By Bryony Dixon

Dr. Wise on Influenza (1919)

Given how saturated we are today with broadcast and online footage of Britain in the coronaviral era, it’s astonishing to think how invisible the first pandemic in the time of cinema is from the film record. Apart from one informational film, which survives in the BFI National Archive, the influenza pandemic of 1918/19 doesn’t appear in British film at all. There were no newsreel reports, and no fiction films were made that even mentioned the three waves of the pandemic that struck the country in the final year of the First World War and would kill 200,000 people.

Silent film did occasionally touch on the subject of great contagions but mostly at the safe distance of a few hundred years. The big one, the Black Death, crops up in quite a few literary sources that were adapted for the silent screen, providing the same mixture of horror and slightly illicit fascination that audiences down the decades have felt for the subject. Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales were perhaps too ambitious for silent filmmakers, with the exception of a tepid 1924 British film, Decameron Nights, which adapted just one of the Italian writer’s many stories. But the popular 1827 Italian novel I promessi sposi, which contains a harrowing chapter on the 1630 outbreak of plague in Milan, was adapted several times in Italy, and F.W. Murnau’s classic films Nosferatu (1922) and Faust (1926) both reference the plagues featured in their famous literary sources, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Goethe’s Faust.

I promessi sposi (1923)

More directly concerned with plague was Edgar Allan Poe’s story of 1842, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, a classic of gothic literature. During the silent era, this was adapted as a screenplay by Fritz Lang in 1919 as The Plague in Florence (directed by Otto Rippert), right in the middle of the flu pandemic. Here Death is played by a beautiful countess who returns as a fiddle-playing hag to play the victims down to hell. The Soviets also made a fascinating version of Poe’s story in 1923, with the irresistible title There Is a Spectre over Europe. It was directed by Vladimir Gardin and has a distinctly anti-decadent, communist slant.

The Plague in Florence (1919)

It must certainly have been easier for silent era audiences to contemplate pandemic within the moral framework of the medieval period. Even later plagues of the 17th century were sufficiently pre-scientific for stories set against them to feel remote from contemporary reality. But when the very modern pandemic of 1918 arrived, on-screen representation was also limited by the context of the First World War. The media, already highly controlled and self-censoring due to the conflict, actively suppressed panic-inducing news about the spread of the influenza. As The Times of 18 December 1918 commented: “Never since the Black Death has such a plague swept over the face of the world, and never, perhaps, has a plague been more stoically accepted.”

The censorship and under-reporting in Britain at the time means that there is very little documentary evidence left to us a century on. Search for images of the so-called ‘Spanish flu’ online and you will find a few from countries such as the US, Canada and Australia but almost none from the UK. Compare this to the colossal number of online videos about the COVID-19 pandemic.

This makes the survival of Dr. Wise on Influenza (1919), which is available to view for free on BFI Player, quite remarkable. The film was made by Joseph Best for the Local Government Board (the precursor to the Ministry of Health) for distribution in cinemas during the deadly second wave of the flu outbreak in late 1918. The advice from Dr Wise in the film is similar to the advice we’ve received in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak – if you feel ill go home and isolate, don’t cough and sneeze in public, keep cheerful, wash your hands.

Frame stills from Dr. Wise on Influenza (1919) show that face masks were advised although even then their efficacy was questioned

The ‘doctor’ uses the device of a fictional story in which a rather dim Mr Brown coughs and sneezes over colleagues in the office and the street, before going on to infect 100 people at a theatre (we see a rare early glimpse of the Empire Leicester Square, which was showing a musical, The Lilac Domino).

It doesn’t end well for Mr Brown, and an on-screen title lists the grim totals of deaths in British cities, just as we’ve become used to seeing today. Other parallels with the current situation are spooky: the prime minister, Lloyd George, like Boris Johnson, was hospitalised for days with the virus, and an anxious nation was told it was ‘touch and go’ for a while.

A title card shows how Dr Wise illustrates the death toll in England’s cities and towns

As they do today, the cinemas and theatres had an obvious physical problem. These were social activities putting a large number of people in close proximity. Worse still, influenza tended to affect young adults disproportionately, unlike COVID-19, and these venues attracted a largely youthful audience. They were also much favoured by soldiers, many of whom were returning from the front carrying the virus, which they had often caught on board crowded ships and in the demob camps.

From The Bioscope, 11 July 1918

We can see from the contemporary press that cinema managers did their best. They disinfected and ventilated the hall between shows, they banned the military and young children. Notices in the papers made clear the precautions such venues were taking. But although there was never a government order to close the cinemas or theatres, after a while people stayed away of their own volition as the disease ravaged the country.

Notice in Sheffield Telegraph, 16 November 1918, mentioning ventilation and disinfecting
An advert in The Era, 6 November 1918